John Gordon will call his final game one week from today — an event that will mark the end of a broadcasting legacy in Minnesota.
The venerable play-by-play man has been the radio voice of the Twins for each of the past 25 years, and few have done the job with as much grace and class. The 70-year-old Gordon has never been flashy — save for an occasionally over-exuberant “Touch-’em-all” home run call — but he has always been entertaining and informative. He also has been extremely popular — both with fans and with the many friends he has made in the game.
Earlier this season, Gordon shared his thoughts on broadcasting, baseball in Minnesota and several other topics — including the steroid era.
David Laurila: How different is the game that you broadcast from the one that you grew up with?
John Gordon: Well, certainly the talent aspect is a lot different. I think that there is much more athleticism in the game now. Growing up in Detroit, I would watch Major League Baseball. Not that Mickey Mantle and Harvey Kuehn, and some of the other players I followed closely, weren’t great athletes, but I don’t think they had the athleticism that the players have today.
DL: Was the broadcasting different?
JG: It was quite a bit different because there wasn’t as much television coverage. It was probably more of a radio game than it is today. There’s so much television coverage today. My gosh, there’s coverage for every game. When I grew up, if they televised 40 or 50 games, that was a major schedule. But every radio broadcast was on, home or away. Even with the advent of cable television, I still don’t think it’s a game for TV. I think it’s more of a game for radio.
DL: Has the style of radio broadcasting evolved?
JG: It’s changed considerably. First of all, there’s so much more technology today than there was in the past. When I listened to broadcasts back in the ‘50s and the ‘60s — as I was growing up — they didn’t have such a thing as an umpire, or a player, mic’d in a game like they sometimes have today. I’m not too sure that they had microphones set up in the screens behind home plate.
The technology coverage that they have today — just the simple post-game interview that many teams do with dugout lines, and the opportunity to go down to the dugout and talk to the player after a game is over. The technology aspect of radio has changed the broadcast quite a bit, and for me, not always for the better. Change is good — don’t get me wrong — but the aspect of changing the presentation of a radio broadcast… I think it’s wrong, the way they’re doing it today.
DL: What about the presentation of statistics?
JG: The computer is so reliable. You can basically look up any stat that you want and try to incorporate it into your broadcast. The computer has changed the preparation and presentation of your broadcast considerably. To be able to keep updated with scores, and pitch counts… the technology today is just amazing. Our engineer uses an iPad, and it charts every pitch. As soon as the pitch is made, he can tell if it’s a ball or a strike. That’s the umpire’s job, not the computer’s job. So, I think that has changed a number of aspects of the game, not only for the fan, but for the broadcaster in presenting the game to the listener.
Never in the ‘50s and ‘60s did they ever have the pitch count on the board, breaking it down to balls and strikes, and pitch speed – whether the pitch was 95 miles per hour or 87 miles per hour. I wonder why is it necessary to put pitch counts up on the board in every ballpark, except for maybe the broadcasters. I think it’s a nice feature for us. But does the fan really want to know that Carl Pavano has 73 pitches and 52 of them are strikes? I don’t quite understand why they think that number is significant to the average fan.
I do think the fan today is very sophisticated, very knowledgeable. There are probably more purists than there are non-purists, and the purists thrive on statistics. It’s become such a numbers game that they need to have that. It’s almost like they need to have it for a fix, to be able to determine why a player is successful or why a player fails.
I guess, the biggest pet peeve that I have right now for the game of baseball is that ballplayer salaries are such a significant factor. I wish they would play the game between the lines, rather than outside the lines. To give you a prime example, we do a radio show every Sunday with our general manager, and every Sunday somebody will call up and ask, “Why are you paying this player so much money to play baseball?” To me, they should say, “Why are you playing this player, because he’s hitting .210 and strikes out one out of every three times that he’s at the plate?” They are concerned more about the fact that salaries are such a significant part of the game today. I just wish that they didn’t publish salaries — that they didn’t highlight them as much as they do for free agent signings and what have you. I would much rather see the fan be concerned about what happens between the lines than what happens outside the lines.
DL: Have fans have been too concerned, or not concerned enough, about the steroid era?
JG: I think they feel it’s a tremendous travesty to the game. I think the purists are extremely upset. They’d like to see a stronger policy, a stronger movement toward erasing many statistics that have become so prominent in the game [that belong to] alleged steroid users. I think baseball has done a pretty decent job of trying to put it on the sidelines, and I think they’ve done a marvelous job of being able to curb steroid use in baseball. I really feel like any player that even thinks about touching steroids is absolutely foolish, because I think baseball has it in check very good right now.
What has happened with many of the game’s stars has been a really difficult time for baseball. The fans have been very upset about it. I firmly believe that players like Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro — and all those others who have numbers to be inducted, or voted into, the Hall of Fame will never get to the Hall of Fame.
DL: How unfathomable is it to consider that the Twins were in danger of losing their franchise a decade ago?
JG: It is [unfathomable], although I have to use the Los Angeles Dodgers situation of today as an example of a franchise that’s in deep, deep trouble. It would be tremendously unfathomable to think that the Dodger franchise would be extinct from Major League Baseball. I don’t think it will be — the commissioner wouldn’t let that happen — but they’re certainly in much more dire straits than the Minnesota Twins ever were in.
I really feel that when you look at Milwaukee’s situation, the Twins situation, and perhaps Houston’s… was nothing more than a strategy to get a new ballpark. And it worked. It took what, seven years for Milwaukee? That’s a tremendous amount of time. They went through much more turmoil and trouble than what the Twins went through trying to get their new ballpark, but they got it. I think the same for Houston. I think Houston was in deep, deep trouble of perhaps losing their franchise, but they got it.
There was certainly a threat of losing the franchise in Minnesota, but in the end it was nothing more than a last-ditch effort to get a new ballpark. Now Minnesota is on solid ground. That’s what they have with their ballpark, and what they’re doing with Target Field and outdoor baseball. They’re going to average 37-38,000 fans a game. It’s a very, very thriving franchise right now. I don’t think there was ever a threat of moving the team to North Carolina, or anywhere else. It was more like, “Hey, we’ve got to wake up the politicians, or whoever had to be awakened.” They had to have a new ballpark. They had to have a new facility for baseball to survive in the city.
DL: What was your opinion of the Metrodome?
JG: It was a football stadium where baseball was played. It was serviceable simply because of the fact that every game that was scheduled was going to be played, in what many people feel is a geographic area where there are a tremendous amount of weather situations. But living in Minnesota for 21 years, really the only time when baseball would be in jeopardy, weather-wise, would be April and early May. September is not a factor. September is about as nice of a month, as beautiful a month, as you would want in an area. I don’t think that thunderstorms, or the weather conditions for the upper midwest are any different than they are in the east. Storms go through Minneapolis like storms go through New York or Boston or Detroit or Cleveland.
DL: What is the most memorable Twins team you’ve broadcast?
JG: The ’91 team. That was such a good team. The ’87 and ’91 World Championship teams, both of them are kind of like co-best memories. The ’87 team wasn’t as good as the ’91 team. The ’91 team was really good. They had really good players, and good fits, whereas the ’87 team was a magical team. Nobody expected it to win. They were in last place in ’86. It proved that just a couple of players — and they weren’t really great name players, yet they were tremendous contributors that really fit in very nicely into the lineup. Maybe the biggest name was Jeff Reardon, who really solidified the bullpen for them. But the ’91 team was a team that was expected to win, and it did win. It won 15 games in a row in June. It had Jack Morris, Scott Erickson, Kevin Tapani – really good pitchers. It had really good players like Kent Hrbek, Kirby Puckett, Chili Davis and Dan Gladden. Greg Gagne was a solid shortstop. That was probably the most memorable ball club.
DL: Who was your favorite Twins player to cover?
JG: The favorite would have to be Kirby Puckett. He was such an iconic player, and he was such a personality. He was so good. Oh, was he good. He could hit a baseball harder than anybody I’ve ever seen. He was just fun to be around and fun to watch — fun to observe as he helped his teammates around him. He was a very, very special player and a special guy.
DL: What was it like to share a broadcast booth with Herb Carneal?
JG: Herb was the consummate pro. I’ve observed so many other broadcasters in baseball and I just don’t think there was anybody who was as smooth, and as professional, as Herb Carneal. He would just kind of slide into the broadcast booth, slip into that chair and broadcast a baseball game. That was his talent and he was extremely good at it. He wasn’t in any way showy or egotistical. He just wanted to do the game. When the game was over, he closed the book and went home. He was a very gentlemanly, professional person who you could really enjoy being with and working with. I had a great experience working with Herb.
DL: What has it been like working with Dan Gladden?
JG: That was a huge transition. Number one, Danny didn’t have any broadcasting experience. People don’t understand how hard of a worker he is. He works very, very hard at whatever his responsibilities are in his job broadcasting baseball. At first, I don’t think he had an understanding of what it was all about, and that’s easy to say because he had never done it before. I think he had listened — and got to know broadcasters along the way in his playing days — but he didn’t realize the amount of work that you have to do. He didn’t realize the responsibility you have. He didn’t realize all of the things that go into the making of a broadcast and presenting it to the listener.
And he’s a personality. To this day — I think it’s his 11th year of broadcasting Twins baseball — he has the feel for the at bat. He has the feel for the player running to first base, the lack of hustle, or the presence of hustle. He has the feel for a player who doesn’t show respect for the game, and for the player who does have respect for the game. To me, even now, he still would like to put the uniform on and go out and hit against the pitcher and field against the opponent. That’s his passion and the respect that he has for the game. He’s fun to work with, there’s no question. A very, very delightful guy to work with.
DL: How do you want to be remembered as a broadcaster?
JG: I don’t know what my answer would be to that. I’ve had opportunities to be mentored by a number of people. Perhaps the most, and the [number] one, would be Ernie Harwell. I got to know Ernie growing up in Detroit and we got to be close friends. He was very helpful in my maturing as a broadcaster.
I just enjoyed the people of baseball so much. I guess that’s the one area in which I want to be remembered, more than anything. I’ve been able to develop great friendships in baseball. I’ve met some wonderful people. I’ve watched and observed how they act on and off the field — or in and out of the broadcast booth. I’ve tried to be a friend to everyone. I’ve tried to be helpful to as many people as I can be helpful to. I don’t have any, I don’t think, enemies in the game.
I’ve always had great respect for the listener, great respect for the broadcast booth and the microphone. It’s interesting, one of the fetishes I have, I guess you could say, is the engineer. I’ve always had great respect for the engineer, and always enjoyed working with the engineer. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many, many engineers along the way. We never traveled with an engineer until perhaps the last eight to ten years, so we’ve had various engineers at different ballparks, and I’ve just marveled at how they’ve been able to get the game on the air and take it out to the listener. I just really love the people and the game of baseball, and I’ve had a passion for the game. I feel very happy, honored and proud that I’ve had that passion for the game. I’ve always had great respect for it.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.